The flavors and ingredients of the Bay Area holiday season reflect who we are – cooking with mochi flour from the pantry or with pomegranates from a neighbor’s yard. Whether your family specialty features mung beans, dulce de leche or a hearty glug of coffee liqueur, you’re probably making your foods for an altered audience this year.
It’s a season of sweets shared apart – when many home bakers are learning to do deliveries at a distance.
We asked three local bakers to share some of what they’ve learned about making special recipes ready to travel as they sell pastries and other sweets in Los Altos and Mountain View. From parchment paper to cookie tins, they have observations on how to avoid rookie mistakes on the way to leaving a stack of cookies on a loved one’s doorstep in the spirit of St. Nicholas.
Know your recipe – and pick a good one
“Every cookie has its secret, that’s what I believe,” Los Altos resident Anat Vronsky intoned when asked about which recipes stuck with her as she tested many variations for Anat Catering, an enterprise that began serving office meals but recentered on families at home as the pandemic transformed where and how we eat.
Vronsky’s been putting together mixed-cookie boxes among other new projects. The meltingly tender secret behind her Chocolate Snowballs? A baking time half the duration you’d expect.
“Even if you think it’s not ready yet, take it out – they’re good when they’re soft inside, and if you leave them longer, they get a little bit stony, which is not the way they should be,” she said.
Vronsky makes this Christmas-typical cookie year-round and said she finds it mildly divisive, with some going wild for it and others left unmoved. It’s a two-stage process (see recipe on page 12) that includes a few hours in the fridge to make the dough easy to shape, and her next pro-tip is not to leave it waiting in the cold for too long – she’s convinced the baking powder loses its ability to raise the cookie into its signature crackled domes after 24 hours.
“The nice thing about Chocolate Snowballs is that they open up like they went through an earthquake; they have this unique look, and it’s the best cookie for chocolate lovers – an all-chocolate cookie – and the better chocolate you use, the better cookie,” she said.
Vronsky uses Valrhona Chocolate, which may cost three times as much as competitor cocoa powders, but she thinks the flavor is worth it in recipes where chocolate takes the limelight so entirely.
“For cookies, it really matters. You have one or two bites and you really want to feel the flavor,” she said.
The same principle applies to Tin Pot Creamery founder Becky Sunseri’s take on baked goods in specialty ice creams. She got her start baking pastries, and you can divine that influence at the scoop shops, where cookies make a guest appearance in sundaes, are mixed into ice creams and sold as stand-alone treats.
Sunseri started experimenting with flavors for an “ice cream of the month club” from her apartment on North San Antonio Road in Los Altos in 2012, and since then has opened brick-and-mortar ice creameries around the Bay Area, including in downtown Los Altos at 201 First St. Tin Pot runs its own bakeshop where they create the cookies, cakes and candies that get swirled into the ice cream flavors, and Sunseri said that an ice cream can only be as excellent as its mix-ins – so aim high when you’re thinking about what to make at home.
Pandemic business problems bring new baked goods
Sunseri would bring home pastries she’d created as a chef and experiment with adding them to her ice creams, seeing how sweets changed as they froze – texture became crucial, sweetness often had to be amped up. Chewy cookies froze well, not too hard, while chocolate could cause problems as icy chunks.
This month, Tin Pot has started selling mini pies for the first time, pecan and apple crisp, sized to hold a scoop of ice cream on top. The single-serving experiment represents yet another COVID-era experiment for a business that had been so reliant on foot traffic and those dining out.
“We’re thinking more and more about bakery and selling online – our cookie doughs are popular,” Sunseri said, noting that pre-prepared cookie dough is a time-honored tradition for from-scratch creators as well. “If you’re a home baker and you want to give to your friends, you can make a big batch of cookie dough, freeze it and bake it the morning of, just a dozen cookies for a friend.”
New pies are also on the horizon at Mountain View’s The Midwife and the Baker bakery. The iconic French, Italian and German holiday sweets just coming in season are joined this year by apple and pumpkin pies for the first time. As online orders have seen an unprecedented surge, bakers like Thomas “Mac” McConnell have adapted away from big restaurant accounts and seen a new focus on diversified, small sales rooted in the community.
Local pastry lovers can walk up to the side door of the bakery at 846 Independence Ave. and order sweets and breads as they come out of the oven, or – these days – make use of the expanding option to pre-order.
The Midwife and the Baker’s signature chocolate chip cookie, made with freshly milled whole-wheat flour, relies on the subtle fragrance and texture that truly fresh whole grains can impart. McConnell advised that home experimenters can probably substitute up to 50 percent whole grain into any favorite recipe they want to adapt, staying ready to slightly increase the liquid called for. But his recipe, shared on page 10, goes straight to 100 percent. Didn’t know that you could derive a “floral, milky aroma” from your flour alone in a cookie recipe? You can buy freshly milled whole wheat from the bakery to try it yourself.
When to eat
Sunseri’s dream cookie is eaten four hours out of the oven, when “the chocolate has solidified enough it doesn’t drip all over your face but it still has the fudgy texture,” as she tantalizingly put it. Vronsky’s Chocolate Snowballs are so delicate that she only bakes them day-of, immediately before sending them out to customers. But despair not – other genres of holiday specialty, like McConnell’s German stollen, might be considered at their best three or four days after baking. The not-too-sweet pastry, fortified with whole grain and generous quantities of butter, includes chopped candied fruits, nuts and the sweet, warming holiday spices associated with wintertime in snowy northern climates. McConnell said you don’t have to warm it or toast it, just consider dipping it in your coffee or tea.
All three bakers agreed that storage is crucial for a good outcome:
• Always use a layer of paper before plastic – keep baked goods dry as well as sealed.
• Cookies don’t belong in the refrigerator unless they are made with a perishable ingredient like the cream in choux puffs.
“As a rule, the dough is for the fridge and the cookie on the counter,” Vronsky said of the baking life cycle.
• A cookie resurrected from the freezer isn’t the same as fresh-baked. When necessity and self-preservation require compromise (and thus freezing what you’d otherwise immediately eat), wrap cookies well and individually (in paper, then plastic) and leave them wrapped to thaw to avoid condensation, Sunseri recommended. She has been known to revive the crispy edge on a day-old cookie via judicious use of a toaster oven. Her final wisdom on strategic preparation for this eventuality: Slightly underbaking the middle of your cookies will give you more latitude in subsequent resurrections.
When (if) the cookies leave your house
McConnell leans toward waxed bags that can hold a decadent pastry without fat leaching through, covered in a layer of plastic to give people a secure sense of sanitary packaging when they receive your treat.
“I want it to be really pretty, but first of all effective,” Vronsky said of her extensive recent experiments in cookie packaging for small-scale home deliveries. She’s become a fan of the cookie tin, the tightly lidded metal boxes currently available in abundant variation online that can hold 10-12 small cookies or a half-dozen larger ones.
• Follow the same rules of storage when you’re preparing sweets as a gift: a layer of paper first, then well sealed.
• Cookies can be fragile, and that parchment paper plays a double role as crispy edge protector. Sunseri lines her tin with parchment, including crinkled pieces for cushioning, layers it between cookies, then adds yet more on top when there’s open space.
• “If you want to go all out, you can get a heat sealer and seal each cookie individually and use crinkly craft grass,” Sunseri noted, but beware half measures – “I used that once without wrapping the cookies and I think everybody ended up eating some grass.”
• 1/2 cup (110 grams) soft butter
• 4 teaspoons (20 grams) sugar
• 3/4 cup (125 grams) brown sugar
• 2.5 tablespoons (40 grams) honey
• 1 large egg
• 1 1/4 cups (205 grams) whole-wheat flour
• 2 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 1/3 cups (205 grams) chocolate chips
Cream together soft butter and sugars until butter is fluffy.
Add egg and mix until batter comes together. Add honey and mix until incorporated. Add all dry ingredients and mix until most of the way mixed. Add chocolate chips and mix until dough comes together.
The recipe makes approximately a dozen cookies, so form 12 evenly sized balls of dough.
Bake 12 minutes at 350 F.
• 1/4 cup (50 grams) unsalted butter
• 1 1/3 cups (200 grams) dark chocolate
• 1/2 cup light brown sugar
• 3 eggs
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour (or 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder)
Mix butter, chocolate and vanilla in pan over low heat, until melted. Transfer chocolate mixture to stand mixer bowl. Mix on low speed and add sugar. Add one egg at a time. Add vanilla, salt and flour and keep mixing only until dough is mixed and smooth. Be careful not to overmix.
Keep dough in refrigerator at least four hours and not more than one day.
Form balls and roll in powdered sugar – should make 45-50 cookies. Balls should be heavily coated in powdered sugar.
Place on sheet pan lined with parchment paper and bake 7-8 minutes in 350 F preheated oven.
Cookies may look too soft when pulled from oven, but after cooling, they will be delicious.